*Minor spoilers for “The Bear,” Episode 1, Season 2 below
“You throw a rock, you hit five great restaurants,” shady investor “Uncle” Jimmy Cicero (Oliver Platt) tells chefs Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) and Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri) in the premiere of Season 2 of The Bear when they ask him to invest $800,000 into transforming The Original Beef from an absolute wreck with load-bearing posters into a destination-worthy tasting menu restaurant. What is going to make their new concept, the Bear, stand out in the crowded Chicago restaurant market?
It’s a question every restaurateur gambling on bustling River North has to ask themselves, and it takes an act of supreme confidence bordering on hubris to believe that they have something special to offer in Downtown Chicago. Mr. Beef, the restaurant the show’s fictional restaurant is based on, is one of the few places that have weathered the neighborhood’s transformation over the past few decades. This season asks whether Carmy and Syd have what it takes to build something new from scratch rather than just trying to manage the mess that Carmy’s brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal) left behind.
It’s appropriate that the episode “Beef,” which takes place over the course of a single day, is set during the winter when many Chicago restaurants partially close to undergo renovations. The episode city’s harshness and beauty in the early moments as pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) scrapes ice off his car (he should have turned the engine on first!) before driving downtown. Rooftops that will be bustling when the temperatures climb are shown topped with snow as Carmy and Syd anxiously seem to wonder what they’re in for while watching the Mr. Beef sign come down.
“Cousin” Richie is understandably particularly anxious about his role in the new fine dining project, and as much of a disaster as The Original Beef restaurant has repeatedly been shown to do, “Beef” gets sentimental with what it has meant to everyone who worked there and their customers. The framed pictures being pulled down include a photo of Ghostbusters star and Chicago-area native Harold Ramis as well as Paul Rudd, though his name is spelled “Paul Rubb.” The restaurant apparently sponsored a Little League team adorably named The Little Beefers. In a nod to one of the show’s primary inspirations, the wall also features a 2005 picture of Anthony Bourdain that ran at the top of his obituary in The Guardian.
As triumphant as cutting $300,000 out of cans of tomato sauce seemed in the Season 1 finale, Carmy’s terrible pizza box math makes it clear that money’s going to go quickly. The episode takes a light jab at Chicago’s notoriously convoluted licensing and inspection process for restaurants as Syd notes that once they fill out the new business paperwork the city will send a rep who will send another rep who will send another rep (BACP, the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, also gets a proper namecheck)
That dense bureaucracy and the continued challenge of staffing restaurants have faced since the COVID-19 pandemic make the plan Carmy, Syd, and Carmy’s sister-turned-project manager Natalie (Abby Elliott) hatch to open in three months, especially ludicrous. Looking at their dense calendar of furniture arrivals, tastings, and some very deep cleaning, I’m especially excited for friends and family service. Not only does the traditional dress rehearsal promise a chance to develop characters by introducing viewers to the people they love, the event often doubles as an influencer night.
Something that Carmy and Syd probably should have talked about before meeting with their investor is their goals for the restaurant. Syd prioritizes getting a Michelin star, which Carmy dismisses as unimportant. The difference in priorities may be in part because Carmy has less to prove, having previously maintained a restaurant’s star (though never earned one all on his own). But it’s also worth noting that only one Black female chef has ever helmed a Michelin-starred kitchen (Mariya Russell of the West Loop’s Kikko). Russell wound up leaving her job just months later, moving to Hawai’i. She’s headed back to the mainland, and her story fits perfectly into The Bear’s narrative about the mental strain top chefs face and how success so rarely actually brings happiness.
“Every Second Counts” is the motto of this season of The Bear as the restaurant crew tries to make their ambitions manifest. Keep checking back here for more analysis of how they use their time.